Cookin' Kuchen: Naming a German Pastry the State Dessert Adds Spice
to Life in McPherson County
Guthmiller, Trevor T. "Cookin’ Kuchen: Naming a German Pastry the State Dessert Adds Spice to Life in McPherson County." South Dakota Magazine, February 2004, 58-61.
|Carol Spitzer and her husband, Jeff, operate the Eureka Bakery, the oldest kuchen producer in town. Today they sell 25 varieties.|
Supporters called it a sweet victory in the spring of 2000 when the bill to designate kuchen South Dakota's official dessert passed the state legislature. Not that is was an easy victory; the bill had failed during the previous legislative session. But it was fought with the same quiet determination that typifies the people who today use the designation to create economic development in their communities.
Kuchen (kü-kin) is a traditional German pastry that roughly translates to “cake”. Typically, kuchen is made from a sweet dough and contains a fruit or custard filling. There are about as many different recipes and styles of kuchen as there are people who make it.
Dawn Quenzer or Eureka has turned kuchen into a business. Quenzer makes Grandma’s Kuchen by hand and sells it at her store on Highway 10. “People who come into the store often ask me if I make the kuchen, and I tell them I do,” she said. “Then they say ‘you don’t look like a grandma.’ I tell them that just because I’m under 40 doesn’t mean I can’t cook kuchen!”
German immigrants brought kuchen to South Dakota in the 1880s. Homesteaders often brought very little with them besides their clothes, basic tools, self- sufficiency and a determination to face the challenges that a rough and unsettled South Dakota threw at them. Many of them settled in McPherson County in north central South Dakota, in towns like Leola, Eureka, Wetonka, Long Lake, and Hillsview.
Many came directly from Germany, others most recently from Russia. Their hard work and agricultural prowess turned McPherson County into one of the largest wheat- producing areas in the country. In fact, in the late 1890s Eureka billed itself as the “Wheat Capital of the United States.” In 1892, 3,300 railroad cars or wheat were hauled out of Eureka. This was a remarkable achievement in an era before the internal combustion engine, when the horsepower that grew and harvested crops was still provided by horses, oxen and people.
German was the first language for many county residents until the past two generations. Even people born in the 1960s and 70s remember their parents and grandparents speaking German when they didn’t want their children to know what they were talking about.
As farms were settled, towns and businesses developed around them. But what later happened across South Dakota happened in McPherson County too; rather than migrating in, people migrated out. Farms grew larger, towns grew smaller, and agriculture struggled. The 8,774 people living in McPherson County in 1930 fell to 5,821 in 1960, to 4,027 in 1980, and to 2,782 in 1997.
The number of farms declined accordingly. The 552 farms in McPherson County in 1978 fell to 397 just 20 years later. Implement dealers, grain elevators, car dealers and hardware stores closed their doors as people left for greener pastures in urban places. Some towns, including Eureka and Leola, having hung on, but others are now little more than ghost towns.
One would think the mood in shrinking towns might be sad and depressed, but like their immigrant ancestors, people who remain are focused on positive aspects of rural life and opportunities for the future. Which brings us back to kuchen, and the new businesses created to fill the growing demand for the state’s official dessert.
To understand why kuchen is such a staple in McPherson County, you must understand the heritage of the people who live there. In 1990, 2,758 residents listed their primary ancestry as German. The next largest group was 146 people who claimed Norwegian origin. Eureka holds a Schmeckfest every fall, and Leola celebrates Rhubarb Day every other July, and kuchen is prominently featured in those events. There aren’t many lutefisk feeds in this part of the state; it’s a kuchen- eatin’ crowd if there ever was one.
Dawn Quenzer has tapped the market. She started making Grandma’s Kuchen in September 2001. Her grandmother, an excellent baker, passed away in 1997. Quenzer thought about the possibilities, then went into business. Besides working on the family farm and providing home health care as a registered nurse in Eureka, she started selling kuchen. Instead of just producing commodities on the farms, she uses farm commodities - wheat flour, eggs, cream, sugar and fruit, and turns them into a delicious dessert that is sold across the state and the country.
Prairie Treasures/ Grandma’s
Eureka Kuchen Factory
Quenzer is not alone. Besides Grandma’s Kuchen, the Eureka Bakery and the Eureka Kuchen Factory also supply the traditional dessert to locals, to stores and even to customers in other states. Grandma’s Kuchen is sold through Quenzer’s Prairie Treasures in Eureka as well as through area grocery stores as Ken’s Fairway in Aberdeen. The company also ships kuchen by mail. “Often, hunters will come through in the fall and order some to be sent back to their homes,” Quenzer said. Like the other businesses, Quenzer ships kuchen only in fall and winter when the weather is cool. Christmas is a big time for mail order sales. “Last years, on one day about a week before Christmas, we shipped out 65 kuchen that went all over the country, from coast to coast,” she said.
Of the many kinds of kuchen Quenzer sells, strawberry is most popular, but locals often go for more traditional variations, such as rhubarb, peach and prune. Quenzer’s store also sells other handmade and South Dakota products from a house that she says “looks like a place where your grandmother would live.”
Like Grandma’s Kuchen, the Eureka Kuchen Factory opened in 2001. That business, operated by Maria Luz Alandy and Hulda Opp, now employs six people producing 20 varieties of kuchen, from rhubarb, sugar and prune to the more exotic pecan and peanut butter. A best seller is their four-inch personal kuchen. They market sweets through their shops in Eureka and through grocery and convenience stores across South Dakota, including HyVee stores in Sioux Falls and Dakotamarts in Pierre and Sturgis. Besides kuchen, the business sells other German foods, such as plachendas, cheese buttons and strudels. The Eureka Kuchen Factory also sells via mail order and through its Web site.
The oldest kuchen producer in town is the Eureka Bakery, operated by Jeff and Carol Spitzer. Like the others, they sell at their store, fill mail orders and market through grocery and convenience stores in the region, generally delivering their product directly. The Spitzers lobbies the state legislature for the dessert bill. “The Eureka Development Corporation led the effort,” said Carol Spitzer, “and we tried to help them all we could. We donated a lot of kuchen that was taken to Pierre to give to legislators to sample. We also took some to legislative cracker barrel meetings to help the cause.” The Eureka Bakery, whose sign reminds people that the German pastry is the state’s official dessert, now produces 25 varieties.
“We get a lot of people who are passing through and stop at our store, who have never heard of kuchen,” Dawn Quenzer said. “We give them a sample and we gain a lot of customers that way.” Quenzer thinks her Grandma’s Kuchen business will continue to grow. Besides delivering her sweets to the state Capitol during the legislative session, she has sold kuchen by the slice at the Sidewalk Arts Festival in Sioux Falls.
Kuchen is not limited to McPherson County. Delmont has a Kuchen Festival every October, and bakeries in many small towns eat the treat. Legislators considering the kuchen resolution received letters from the 18 town councils around the state. On February 9, 2000, the bill designating kuchen the state dessert passed the house of representatives 39 to 24. Six days later it passed the senate 19 to 11, and was signed into law March 14.
Some scoffed at the kuchen bill, others found it humorous. But a new industry has taken hold in north central South Dakota, adding new life to a rural community. And the entrepreneurial spirit of people like Dawn Quenzer has introduced more people to the joy of eating the state’s official dessert.
Those who’d like to try kuchen can ask whether their local bakery produces it or a grocery store carries it, they can make their own, or they can contact a kuchen maker in Eureka. You don’t have to be German to appreciate kuchen, official state dessert or not.
About the author - Trevor Guthmiller, a native of Leola, lives in Brandon with his wife Melissa and their children Adam and Ashley.
Clean Your Plates for Kuchen
By Trevor T. Guthmiller
Growing up in Leola was someting we always looked forward to - if we cleaned our plates. Since my mother and grandmother are great cooks, this was never a problem. Like many family recipes, the one for kuchen has been handed down and around our family for years. My grandmother's sister, Edna Neuharth, shared it with my grandmother, Adeline Ehley, who handed it on to my other, Leta Guthmiller.
A great thing about kuchen is that it comes in so many styles and flavors. While this is good, it sometimes led to divisions at the dinner table. Adlts preferred rhubarb and prune kuchen, while children favored apple, peach or strawberry. To get around this, my mother often made a sugar kuchen, which she knew everyone would like. Her recipe is felxible enough to make kuchen with or without fruit.
When cooks made kuchen to feed men working in the field, they didn't make just one; they made several, and extras to freeze. Great-aunt Edna's original recipe makes about eight kuchen. To make fewer, adjust the ingredients. Or make eight, some plain and with fruit.
Reprinted with permission of South Dakota Magazine.